Edward Everett had as distinguished a career as perhaps any American.  He served in Congress in both the House and the Senate.  He was a Governor of Massachusetts.  He also served as Minister to Great Britain and was the Secretary of State.  He also was President of Harvard University.

Everett was considered to be the nation’s finest orator, and for that reason was selected to be the principal speaker at the dedication of one of the nation’s most important military cemeteries.  His speech ran for two hours and was well received.

Following Everett’s speech, the next presentation was to be given by a gangly looking man.  His weary expression conveyed a very troubled reflection on the soldiers who were buried in the cemetery.  As he approached the lectern, he removed just two sheets of paper from his pocket.  Then he began his speech:  “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…”

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lasted just two minutes and consisted of 10 sentences.  In contrast, Everett’s speech consisted of 13,607 words.  Few people today even realize that Everett’s speech was to be the central message from the dedication.

There is a saying attributed to a seminary professor who taught the practice of preaching:  “There’s no souls saved after 15 minutes of a sermon.”  Brevity in speaking and writing is a difficult art to master.  It takes real skill to convey a message in a few words, but messages which are longer tend to be forgotten or not understood.  That’s why Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one that everyone recognizes but Everett’s oration has been long forgotten.

Brevity is an art form.  It requires skill to reduce messages to their very essence.  It also requires an understanding of the audience and what they need to know.  Those who are skilled at brevity are also confident in what they are saying/writing.  They don’t need excessive words to convey their thoughts.  Unnecessary verbiage is often a symptom of a lack of confidence, hoping that the receiver of the information will find something useful.

The children’s television show, Sesame Street, often kept its segments in a 30-45 second span of time because that was a child’s attention span.  It has been said that an executive’s attention span is even shorter.  Brevity recognizes that all of us have limited attention spans.  Just think how long it takes for your mind to drift from one topic to another.

Brevity like other art forms requires confidence in your message, understanding of your audience, courage to keep it short, and ruthless reduction of what doesn’t need to be said.

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“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”  -Friedrich Nietzsche (Philosopher)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.